October 29, 2005

Virtual Gaming Sweatshops in China

As online gaming as taken off, these "virtual worlds" are getting all too real, with first world games hiring Chinese workers to "level up" their characters to become more powerful, doing the boring parts of online gaming in real sweatshops, as detailed in this BBC story describing a photograph of where this labor is done:

One shot shows what, at first glance, might be mistaken for a virtual room from within a game. With newspapers as wallpaper, posters of fantasy figures, and scruffy bedding, it is in fact a room in a net cafe in Tianjin, China.

It is used by employees who work for a dollar a day levelling up player's characters. Up to 30 will work for 16 hours, using the room to sleep in shifts.

Hat tip to Metafilter.
Posted by Nathan at 04:09 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Better News From California On Paycheck Protection Deception

Reprinted from Confined Space

Good news from north to south, coast to coast lately:

Jonathan Tasini points us to some good poll news from California. After consistently looking like it would pass by a comfortable margin, support for Proposition 75, a Schwarzenegger-backed initiative that would require government employee unions to give prior notice to members before using dues on political activity, seems to be slipping to the point where it is currently tied.

The poll, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California has the yes and no votes tied at 46% each. In fact, all of the Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives are losing, including the teacher tenure initiative that I wrote about last week.

All in all, things are looking rather bleak for the Governator according to the LA Times:

For a governor whose public image is the driving force in the election, the survey also found broader trouble: Just 38% of likely voters gave him positive job ratings, a steep drop from a year ago. The poll was the first independent measurement of public opinion since the full engagement of campaign advertising began.

The big questions to be answered in the campaign's final stretch are whether Schwarzenegger can quickly revive his popularity — or get large groups of voters to overlook their disapproval of him and back at least one of his four ballot measures, said pollster Mark Baldassare of the policy institute.

"That's really the challenge," he said.

Earlier polls had found Schwarzenegger's best chance was Proposition 75, which could weaken his labor adversaries in Sacramento by requiring public-employee unions to get written permission from members each year before spending their dues on campaigns.

But amid a raging television ad battle over the measure, support for it has slid to 46% of likely voters, down from 58% in August, with 46% now opposed. The tight race — and the political power at stake for labor and its Democratic allies — makes Proposition 75 a central fight of the campaign's closing days.

On Thursday, unions began airing a new television ad saying the measure would stifle public workers "but not Arnold's corporate donors," an effort to build on prior criticism of Schwarzenegger's fundraising. It also stresses that union members already have the right to keep their dues from being spent on campaigns.

"Put the brakes on Arnold's sneaky power play," the ad says.

Schwarzenegger and his business allies have spent heavily on ads showing public workers saying Proposition 75 would protect them from having their union dues spent against their will on political campaigns they disagree with. Those ads are aimed, in part, at encouraging union members to buck their leadership and back the measure.

But the new poll found that 62% of union members or those with immediate family in a union opposed the measure.

Related Articles

Posted by Jordan Barab at 02:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

New America Foundation Screws the Grassroots

When Wal-Mart's trucks break down, no one expects the government to pay to repair them. Wal-Mart pays to fix them and the costs are included in the price of the goods they sell.

Yet moderate Democrats apparently think that when workers get sick, companies don't have the responsibility to "repair" their workers. The new talking points from think tank Washington -- echoing what Ezra says -- is that it's not Wal-Mart's responsibility to take care of sick workers:

The controversy over Wal-Mart's benefits may mask what some experts see as an unraveling of the employer-based system of health coverage. "These are indications of the gaps in the health care system that are exposed by Wal-Mart," said Len Nichols, a health economist at the New America Foundation, an independent public policy group in Washington. "You can't blame Wal-Mart."
So it's nice to know that when we on the labor left mobilizing against Wal-Mart feel the knife in our back, we know who put it there.

But what's odd is that the coterie of "free trade" Democrats usually tell workers that free trade is an imperative, because you MUST allow the marketplace to set the price of products, workers jobs be damned (not theirs of course), But when it comes to including the market costs of health care for workers within the goods sold by corporate America, that's the point where the DC free trade crowd suddenly become socialists, all for artificially lowering the costs of goods to benefit corporate profits.

So why not have taxpayers subsidize machine repair for corporations?

Or let corporations pollute the environment at will and leave it to the taxpayers to clean up the toxic spills?

Why do corporations get a free pass in responsibility for health care costs, but not the other social costs like pollution -- "externalities" in wonk speak -- that business inflicts on society?

Now, there is a pragmatic argument to relieve companies of that responsibility for health care costs to gain an advantage in global trade, but that's just a variant on a whole range of trade subsidies that I thought the free trade crowd was against?

On basic economics, this new talking point from the DC wonks is nonsensical and a bit hypocritical from folks who seem to be heartless about manufacturing workers losing their jobs to "free trade", but awfully compassionate about the burdens on corporate profits from health care costs due to that same international competition.

In the abstract, I'd love to have single-payer health care, as well as fair trade, and worker-owned companies for that matter. But at the moment, with a GOP filibuster sitting there to block the creation of single-payer health plan, this DC wonk strategy of attacking the employer-based health care system is ridiculous, especially the talking point that Wal-Mart is not a bad actor just because they provide less health care to their employees than other large employers.

Strategically, the moderate DC wonks are rhetorically screwing over the labor unions and other groups that have spent the last few years attacking Wal-Mart to force the company to provide better health care. Some of that pressure led to Wal-Mart increasing its health care coverage and other benefits as it feels the pressure from union organizing drives.

And on the legislative front, right now the broadest and currently most successful campaign for expanding health care for Americans is based on strengthening the employer-based health care system by requiring employers not providing health care for their employees to do so. New York City, and Suffolk County just passed laws requriing large retailers like Wal-Mart to provide health care to their employees-- and Maryland passed a similar law through their legislature, only to see their GOP governor veto it.

And what was the rhetorical strategy used to get those laws passed? Arguing that companies have a responsibility to provide health care for their employees. See this flyer from the New York City Health Care Security Act::

This New York City law would help responsible businesses to continue offering health care and expand access to health care for tens of thousands of working New Yorkers.

The new law would level the playing field for businesses. Many responsible business owners are being hurt by unfair competition from owners who recklessly cut health benefits to lower their costs.

Irresponsible employers who refuse to provide health care — despite the fact that their competitors are doing so — are shifting to taxpayers the cost of caring for their workers.

Responsible business owners support this bill because it helps them continue providing health care for their employees without worrying about being hurt by competitors that cut employee benefits in order to lower costs.

This is the message progressives are trying to deliver.

Obviously, groups like the New America Foundation have the free speech right to say anything they want, but when groups like that deliberately promote rhetoric that undermines current progressive organizing efforts, it's clear that they can't be trusted as allies by grassroots organizations.

Here's the difference between conservative and a lot of DC liberal intellectuals. Conservatives are actually disciplined in using the privileges they have in think tanks to support the conservative movement out in the field. But much of the DC liberal policy wonk crowd-- whether supporting free trade or the new talking point that Wal-Mart has no responsibility to provide health care -- seem to not give a damn if they are writing Wal-Mart's campaign ads.

Believe me, Wal-Mart will happily quote the New America Foundation to bloster their case on why New York City or various state governments shouldn't be forcing them to provide health care to their employees. And they will turn around and lobby against any universal health plan that the DC crowd promotes.

The only way Wal-Mart won't lobby against a broader health plan is if the company has already been forced to provide health care for their employees. New York City and Suffolk County have already done so in their jurisdictions and the more states follow suit, the less the Wal-Marts of the world will fight more universal health care solutions.

But with Wal-Mart employees showing up at emergency rooms with sick children whose parents had been unable to afford care until their medical problems became critical, it's just an obscenity to excuse Wal-Mart, one of the richest corporations on earth, for its failure to provide health care to its employees.

Posted by Nathan at 07:33 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 28, 2005

Letting Wal-Mart Off the Hook

Responding to the nasty Wal-Mart memo, where the company laid down a strategy of discriminating against the unhealthy and disabled to keep down health care costs, both Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein in a sense defended Wal-Mart, since the irrationality of employer-based health care means that all companies want to avoid high-cost employees and dump their costs on other employers or the public. Says Ezra:

In a world where [companies] have to pay for health care, it makes perfect sense. So don't get angry at Wal-Mart; they're doing exactly what the market demands. Get angry at lawmakers.
This statement by Ezra is why wonkish liberals are getting their asses handed to them by conservatives.

Yes, there is a good argument for national health care insurance to diminish the incenctive for such discrimination against the sick and disabled, but it's ridiculous to let Wal-Mart off the hook. Lots of laws aren't in the economic self-interest of companies -- from minimum wage laws to family leave policies -- but companies that ignore them deserve to be slammed hard.

Employers shouldn't be excused for completely rotten, immoral activities just because a better policy would make compliance with the law easier. This is bleeding heart liberalism applied to the largest corporation on earth, as if Ezra is excusing some kid caught purse snatching with the excuse that society had failed to provide better economic alternatives to a life of crime, so it's really society's fault that the victims lost their property.

Bashing the government for Wal-Mart's actions is just bad politics. Talking about the incompetence of government in designing our health care system as an argument for entrusting government with MORE responsibility for managing that system is probably the most self-defeating approach possible. But the more large corporations like Wal-Mart are attacked by the public for their health care policies, the more those companies will have an incentive to push for national health care to relieve the pressure on them. But bash government, and those companies are happy to see attention diverted from them.

More fundamentally, such an approach assumes that better government bureaucrats are all that are needed to get a better policy, but the reality is that better health care in other countries is dependent on both better policies and stronger worker power to hold their companies accountable. Yes, some of the irrational incentives in the system can be eliminated, but unless the employer role is completely eliminated -- which hasn't happened except in a few countries -- then holding companies accoutable will always be critical.

If you want national health care, then building union strength is critical, both to create more of the political critical mass to pass the legislation but also to make sure it's implemented fairly. And a critical step to strengthening union power is keeping the public pressure on Wal-Mart for its bad actions, so the company can be forced to recognize the right of its employees to unionize in coming years.

So don't let Wal-Mart off the hook. For the sake of national health insurance.

Update: Ezra has a response here and I have a response in comments on that thread.

Posted by Nathan at 07:24 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

NLRB Strips Newspaper Carriers of Right to Form Unions

Following recent decisions stripping graduate student employees and many disabled workers of union rights, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that newspaper carriers could be fired at will if they tried to organize a union:

Concerned with their meager earnings and a lack of health benefits, the newspaper carriers who haul and deliver the St. Joseph News-Press of St. Joseph, MO, sought to form a union. In October 1999, the carriers contacted the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to help them obtain union representation. Soon after the effort began, the St. Joseph News-Press fired two pro-union carriers and cut back the work of two others, leading the IBT to file unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.
The local NLRB administrative judge ruled in the workers' favor back in 2001, but four years later, the national labor board reversed the decision, declaring the carriers "independent contractors" and therefore outside the protections of labor law.

As the dissenting member of the board pointed out, carriers are completely economically dependent on the newspaper companies that employ them, so the legal fiction of them "running their own businesses" is just a loophole to undermine labor rights.

Just one more brick in the wall of workers being denied legal rights on any pretext rightwing courts or this NLRB can find.

Posted by Nathan at 06:34 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

October 27, 2005

Good Work Life, Good Economy

The Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) just came out with this great report detailing how states with strong worker protection and good pay are not a competitive disadvantage compared to the states with weak worker rights and low pay:

A major finding of the study is a consistent correspondence between the quality of a state's environment for workers and its economic health. States ranking high on the list generally have faster economic growth and lower poverty rates, and conversely, states at the bottom of the list tend to have slower economic growth and higher poverty rates. This suggests that anti-poverty strategies focused on creating decent jobs is viable as well as desirable, a finding that is especially pertinent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, whose impact was devastating on the poor in New Orleans.
One of the sad parts of the study is how clear it was that the Gulf states like Louisiana and Mississippi already were economic disasters, suffering under bad jobs and weak worker protections-- where rightwing politicians had sold the voters on the idea that the route to growth was undermining rights for workers, yet feeding bad long-term economic prospects for the state.

This is an important study in light of the restoration of Davis-Bacon wage standards for the Gulf Coast. Bush and the conservative Republicans had been selling a low-wage route to recovery as necessary for economic recovery in the region, but the PERI report emphasizes that weak low-wage, low-worker-protection approaches by states are not the advantage the rightwing makes them out to be.

Posted by Nathan at 10:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 26, 2005

WE WIN!- White House Reinstates Davis-Bacon

From a press release from Rep. George Miller, whose office deserves great credit for their outstanding work:
Bowing to pressure from a united Democratic front, a small group of members of his own party, the religious community, and the labor movement, President Bush announced today he would reverse the decision he made in September to remove wage protections for construction workers in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.  

After Katrina, the President suspended the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay at least the prevailing wage to construction workers in a local area.  The president's action, which was widely denounced, followed requests from right-wing activists and Republican members of Congress who exploited Katrina to achieve a long-sought ideological agenda item.  

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, led the effort in the House to force Bush to rescind his Gulf Coast wage cut.

"President Bush finally realized that his Gulf Coast wage cut was a bad idea that hurt the workers and their families affected by Katrina," said Miller. "But let me be clear - the President is backing down today only because he had no other choice.

"The President's wage cut was just another example of his incompetence as a leader in a time of crisis and of his constant need reward the private agenda's of his special special-interest friends rather than attend to the needs of all the people affected by this storm."

The President's wage cut was facing a congressional showdown as early as next week because of a Joint Resolution Miller recently introduced that would have forced the House to vote by early November on whether or not to allow the wage cut to stand. Miller said that Democratic action - coupled with pressure from some members of the President's own party - left the President no option but to reverse his own mistake.

Miller said that until the President formally issues a proclamation reversing the Gulf Coast wage cut, he will closely monitor the situation, and remains prepared for a vote on his Joint Resolution if necessary.

Miller also said that the Bush Administration has taken other actions that undermine Gulf Coast workers - actions that it should also reverse. These include suspending affirmative action requirements and safety standards for truck drivers.

"Americans deserve a lot better than the failed leadership our President has shown in the Gulf Coast," Miller said.

Posted by Nathan at 03:16 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

October 25, 2005

Wal-Mart: Discriminate to Save Health Care Costs

The day after Wal-Mart's fake PR offensive to portray themselves as concerned about their employees health care and wages, Stephen Greenhouse -- who proves the NY Times still has some decent reporters -- reveals this internal memo from Wal-Mart.  The memo calls for Wal-Mart saving money by forcing more employees into part-time work without benefits and discriminating against the unhealthy and disabled:
To discourage unhealthy job applicants, [the memo] suggests that Wal-Mart arrange for "all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering)."...

"It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier work force than it will be to change behavior in an existing one," the memo said. "These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart."

Wal-Mart has hopefully bought itself a nice Americans with Disabilities Act class action lawsuit.

Or better, the publicity will force them to avoid any of the nasty proposals outlined in the memo, since any lawyer now has documented intent to discriminate in hand if they do.

Posted by Nathan at 11:07 PM | Comments (73) | TrackBack



American workers have paid a significant price for the decline of the American labor movement declined over the last three decades. A strong, vibrant labor movement benefits all workers: unionization has spillover effects into non-union employment, as corporations raise wages and improve working conditions in order to compete for workers and in efforts to stave off union organizers. A labor movement in decline and on the defensive is less and less able to perform that galvanizing role, and all workers suffer as a consequence.

What is more, an analysis in the Sunday New York Times points out, some groups of working people and Americans suffer more than others from the decline of the labor movement. The American labor movement has been an important means of economic advancement for African-Americans, who have been present in disproportionately large numbers in the American working class and working poor as a result of the legacy of racial slavery and a racial caste system of segregation. When the great industrial unions of the CIO organized the automobile, steel, electrical, chemical and other basic manufacturing industries, they organized workforces with large numbers of African-Americans, opening up doors to a ‘middle class’ life, in which one could live a life of modest comfort, own a home, send your children to college and retire in dignity and security.

But as the industrial unions began to decline, the numbers of African-Americans with better-paying union jobs also began to fall precipitously. As late as the 1980s, one out of every four African-American workers was a union member; today, it is closer to one in every seven. Last year, overall union membership fell by 304,000, but African-Americans accounted for 55% of that loss. As globalization decimates American basic manufacturing industry after American basic manufacturing industry, unionized African-American workers concentrated in those industries have lost their jobs, and their access to the ‘American dream.’ “The future of black workers is very bleak indeed,” the Times quotes William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor of sociology who was written widely influential works on race and poverty, “if they lose their place in the union movement.”

The Times' analysis has a curious, not entirely informed take on the issue, one which fails to take note of how African-American workers were organized into the labor movement in the past and which seems out of touch with current organizing realities. It suggests that it is somehow possible for unions to organize African-American workers as African-Americans, and not as part of a group of workers at a work site or in an industry. Consequently, it presents the organizing efforts of both the AFL-CIO and the new splinter federation, Change to Win, as disappointing. Both federations talk of organizing all workers in a given work site or industry, and with this project in mind, they use the language of class, rather the language of race in their work.

Yet race and class are interlocking phenomenon in American life, in ways that belie the stark opposition the Times’ analysis posits between them. To the extent that American workers, and especially America’s working poor, are organized into unions, African-Americans and other people of color will benefit disproportionately, because they are over-represented in those classes. Take the UFT’s current campaign, undertaken with ACORN, to organize 52,000 home day care workers in New York. The providers of home day care are predominantly African-American and Latina women, and so the beneficiaries of unionization would also be predominantly African-American and Latina women. But the UFT and ACORN is organizing all home day care providers – not a specific racial subset of them. Just as the decline in American industrial unions has harmed the economic well-being of African-Americans, an upsurge in union organizing will benefit them.

Martin Luther King understood this reality well. In a well-known passage cited by the Times, King wrote that the American labor movement “must concentrate its powerful forces on bringing economic emancipation to white and Negro by organizing them together in social equality.” The revitalization of the American labor movement is the sine qua non of the pursuit of economic justice in the United States.

Posted by Leo Casey at 05:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Feinstein Withdraws Bill Gutting Alien Tort Claims Act

I just received an email from Senator Feinstein's office that she has withdraw the bill she was sponsoring to undermine the Alien Tort Claims Act and undermine international human rights, as I wrote about here last week.

This is the letter to the Judiciary Committee (pdf) her office attached to the email, so I assume she wanted folks to read that public pressure has its effect:

"The legislation calls for refinement in light of concerns raised by human rights advocates, and thus a hearing or other action by the Committee on this bill would be premature."
We'll need to keep our eye on her office, but I'm glad she was willing to withdraw such a bad bill. And congrats to the human rights groups like EarthRights International which led the campaign to force Feinstein to back down.
Posted by Nathan at 12:09 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Bad History

The blog Marginal Revolution, although economically libertarian, is usually more interesting than the average free market rant.  But this post on the supposed "secret history of the minimum wage" is just propaganda of the worst sort, distorting history to paint minimum wage advocates as racists and male supremacists:
Progressives, including Richard Ely, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, the Webbs in England etc., were interested not in protecting women but in protecting men and the race.   Their goal was to get women back into the home, where they belonged, instead of abandoning their eugenic duties and competing with men for work.

Unlike today's progressives, the originals understood that minimum wages for women would put women out of work - that was the point and the more unemployment of women the better!

If this was the point of minimum wage and maximum hours legislation, why did progressives of that era also advocate for those same kind of laws on behalf of white elite men in privileged sectors of the economy?

Did they hate white men as well?

Of course, the context for this post is that the Supreme Court and various state courts struck down minimum wage and maximum hour laws as unconstitutional in that period.  And so progressives, in order to salvage some of those laws on behalf of women, turned to a whole range of alternative arguments to convince the courts that women deserved "special" protection, especially since women could not vote and could not protect their interests themselves politically.  

Having struck down a maximum wage law for male bakers in Lochner v. New York,  the Supreme Court, responding to these alternative arguments in Muller v. Oregon to an odd mix of arguments and social policy studies to argue that women could claim special protection under the law:

[W]oman has always been dependent upon man. He established his control at the outset by superior physical strength, may, without conflicting with the provisions and this control in various forms, with diminishing intensity, has continued to the present. As minors, thought not to the same extent, she has been looked upon in the courts as needing especial care that her rights may be preserved.
Of course you can pull racist or sexist quotes about pretty much any group in that period-- it was a profoundly racist and sexist society.  But to ignore that earlier legal context of arguments by people like Brandeis and Frankfurter-- the latter who would strongly uphold minimum wage laws for men as well as women once he was on the Supreme Court -- and paint support for the minimum wage as some kind of anti-female conspiracy is disingenous history of the worst and most perverted kind.

This meme of wage laws as racist is a pervasive trope of the rightwing-- we've seen it recently in rightwing justifications for Bush undermining Davis-Bacon post-Katrina.  It of course ignores the fact that latinos and african americans are some of the strongest supporters of such laws.    

There are interesting lessons about racial and sexual divides in the workforce from that era, but these kinds of simplistic propagandistic arguments don't count.

Posted by Nathan at 10:21 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wal-Mart: Boost Minimum Wage

It may be PR, but even the need to do PR shows that Wal-Mart is feeling the heat from union and community pressure. And having Wal-Mart support the minimum wage can only help:

Scott said Wal-Mart would support an increase in the federal minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour. On average, the company says, it pays full-time U.S. associates $9.68, so a higher minimum wage would have a much tougher effect on Wal-Mart's smaller rivals.

"While it is unusual for us to take a public position on a public policy issue of this kind," he said, "we simply believe it is time for Congress to take a responsible look at the minimum wage and other legislation that may help working families."

And Wal-Mart has a new lower-cost health plan for employees -- a ridiculously weak one with a $1000 deductible -- but the principles are in place.

Wages should be higher and employees deserve a health plan. Now the only question is the price.

But the terms of debate are moving from just defending low prices to admitting that decent pay for its employees matter too. And once that's the debate, it becomes harder to argue that employees don't need a stronger voice in helping set those pay and benefits.

Posted by Nathan at 09:19 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

October 21, 2005

Astroturf Newspaper Editorials Against Davis-Bacon

Facing South has the goods on a media manipulation game being run by the rightwing using the same editorial on multiple papers around the country. Check it out.

Posted by Nathan at 05:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 20, 2005

Dems to Force Vote on Gulf Coast Wage Cut

Invoking a never-before-used parliamentary rule included in the National Emergencies Act, the Democratic Leadership of the House are demanding an up-down vote on Bush's suspension of the Davis-Bacon law in the Gulf Coast.  As a press release from George Miller's office explains:
Miller today introduced a Joint Resolution under the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which provides for fast track action by Congress when the President unilaterally suspends a law, as he did with Davis-Bacon. Although the National Emergencies Act is nearly 30 years old, this is the first time that a lawmaker has ever invoked its fast track procedures. By law, Congress must act on Miller's Joint Resolution within 15 calendar days - in this case, by November 4.
37 Republicans have written to the President opposing his suspension of the Act, more than enough to overturn Bush's action, and they may have to put their votes where there's mouths are if the Democrats succeed with this maneuver.

A key to GOP unity has been avoiding tough votes on labor issues for Republicans in labor-friendly districts.  But that gambit may be coming to an end.

Posted by Nathan at 03:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

What Makes Unions Strong?

Let's be clear about one thing.  The very fact that General Motors is negotiating with the UAW over health benefits reflects why unions matter-- because in the rest of corporate America, almost 20% of employers have dropped coverage altogether in the last decade, adding to the 40% that weren't providing health insurance before that.

And the UAW is still one of the strongest unions out there, even if the economic challenges they face are equally strong.  A lot of analysts are positively schizophrenic on this fact.  Take Daniel Gross at Slate, who criticizes GM for not slashing benefits more since, "GM doesn't face a strong union."

Except it does.  The UAW has used a series of disciplined strikes to periodically cripple GM in the last decade, a reminder to the company that they couldn't unilaterally make decisions.

As Gross admits later in the piece:

A strike, even for a week or two, would prove devastating. It would halt production and screw up the just-in-time delivery system.
What makes a strong union is one that has the discipline among members to strategically defend members interests.  And the UAW has for seventy years done that year after year, not always perfectly, but in a way that has immeasurably improved the lives of their members.

If the UAW has had a weakness, it's that the union hasn't figured out to leverage that strategy to organize new Japanese auto transplants.  But the fact that UAW members are worrying about paying a few copays as the rest of corporate America has been completely dumping its health care responsibilities is nothing to sneeze at.

Posted by Nathan at 08:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 19, 2005

The Senate Minimum Wage Vote

Unsurprisingly, the GOP-controlled Senate voted down a proposed increase in the minimum wage today.

But the Roll Call vote had some interest, if only in the fact that it marked three desperate GOPers up for reelection -- John Chafee, Mike DeWine and, of all people, Rick Santorum -- crossing the party aisle to vote for Ted Kennedy's amendment.

Oh and just a word to the wise, not only did "moderate" John McCain vote against the minimum wage, he's consistently voted against it throughout his career.  McCain plays maverick on a couple of issues, but on economic issues his career has been a consistent one of voting against the working families on any vote where it mattered.

Posted by Nathan at 09:21 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Feinstein: Protect Corporate Violations of Human Rights

Diane Feinstein, despite a moderately liberal voting record, periodically goes out and stabs progressives in the back, almost always on behalf of core business interests allied to her campaigns or her husband's many business interests.

On Monday, Senator Feinstein introduced legislation to undermine what is known as the Alien Tort Claims Act, an old law dating back to the first years of the Republic that has been revived in recent years by human rights activists to hold corporations responsible for their actions in developing nations.

EarthRights International has been one of the key organizations using the law in defense of indigencous people and other groups who have seen their homes and even lives destroyed by multinational corporations collaborating with torture and slavery.

Here a good basic fact sheet on ATCA, but the bottom line is that these corporations take advantage of pathetically weak legal systems in other countries, make their profits, haul it back to developed nations like the United States -- and expect never to be held accountable for the murder and slavery that made those profits possible.

The Bush Administration has been trying to undermine ATCA for a number of years -- with the support of Tony Blair's government -- but it is just sad to have a supposedly liberal Democrat like Diane Feinstein helping Bush out by sponsoring this legislation.

The flashpoint for the new interest in ATCA was the success of a case, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, in June of 2004. As detailed by EarthRights International:

In a huge victory for victims of human rights abuses, the Supreme Court today affirmed that non-U.S. citizens may sue their abusers in U.S. federal court, under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA).

“This is fabulous news for human rights,” said Rick Herz, Staff Attorney at EarthRights International. “The Supreme Court has validated the last 24 years of consistent case law allowing victims to seek justice in U.S. courts. We are going to continue to seek to hold abusers, and the corporations that assist them, accountable.”

So what Bush -- and now Feinstein -- want to do is reverse this victory and shut the courtroom door to those victims. It's not like ATCA has been a massively effective law in shutting down corporate operations overseas, but these corporations don't even want the possibility of having to answer questions about their dirty dealings overseas.

You can write a letter to President Bush protesting this attack on ATCA here.

Or you can email Senator Feinstein here.

Posted by Nathan at 02:04 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 18, 2005

Where are Investor Givebacks at GM?

During decades of General Motors profitability, investors drained the company of dividends, money that could have instead been invested in new technology and fuel efficiency research.

So now that it turns out in retrospect that the company couldn't afford all those dividends, why isn't the company demanding that those investors give back some of those dividends to support the company?

Instead, retirees who were promised medical benefits after they retired in those same profitable years are being told they will have to give back those benefits::

"We fought for everything we got," said Ray Bailey, 75, a former G.M. electrician in Belleville, Mich., who along with his wife, Dorothy - and the Logganses - worked at the G.M. Willow Run Transmission plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. "We took benefits instead of wages a lot of different times, so they didn't give us anything. We earned it.
So over those decades, both investors and workers were promised and given various economic benefits.

But the company is only "clawing back" benefits from workers, not from the investors who made tens of billions of dollars over those same years.

One lesson of the recent corporate attacks on worker pensions and health benefits is that unions can't trust companies to honor their contracts. For decades, there was an ideological assault on union-run pension funds like thsoe run by the Teamsters. No doubt there was some corruption in those funds, but the full-scale corporate looting of pensions and medical funds by the airlines and now auto companies makes the mafia look like pikers.

Posted by Nathan at 06:24 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

October 17, 2005



Should academic freedom in American public universities and public schools be a constitutionally protected right under the First Amendment?

This question has been posed in a case which was just heard by the Supreme Court, Garcetti v. Ceballos. The instant case before the Court involves a public prosecutor who was demoted when he protested the district attorney’s decision to validate a search warrant obtained through perjured testimony. The lawyers for prosecutor argued that his protest was protected speech under the First Amendment, given that it is an arm of the government that penalized him for his speech. Moreover, they argue, the content of his speech was directed at governmental misconduct. The lawyers for the County of Los Angeles contended that “job-related speech should not be protected under the First Amendment,” whatever its merits. [The New York Times provided an account of the hearing of the case, Justices Grapple With Whether Public Employees Enjoy Free-Speech Rights on the Job.]

Directly raising the issue of academic freedom, Chief Justice John Roberts asked if a professor at a public university could be dismissed for the content of his lecture. A public university professor “should not be entitled presumptively to First Amendment protection,” responded the lead lawyer for Los Angeles County. What does that mean in practice, Roberts inquired. The professor would have a burden of proof to show that he should not have been dismissed for the content of his speech, came the reply. In what may be a clue to his own thinking, Roberts ended the line of questioning with a comment. “I would have thought,” he concluded, “you might have argued that because the speech was paid for by the government, it was government speech and the First Amendment did not apply at all.”

To be fair, the position that Roberts seems to be supporting is not one opposed to academic freedom per se. Rather, it is opposed to including academic freedom within the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech, even in the context of a public educational institution under the aegis of government. As a practical matter, therefore, this position is agnostic on the subject, leaving the question up to the state and local governments which sponsor the public educational institutions to decide. Such a stance would allow the state or local government sponsoring the university to pass laws protecting academic freedom, and permit the university itself to adopt a policy of academic freedom. But by the same token, it would also allow the state or local governments to pass laws which would restrict academic freedom, and permit the university to adopt policies which would infringe upon it.

Should academic freedom rise to the level of a constitutional protected right, such that a state or local government could pass no law rinfringing upon it, and a public university or a public school would be required to respect it?

For some guidance, one might consider here the First Amendment protections the Court has accorded to political speech. Although American constitutional history is not without its blemishes in the area of political speech, over much of the last half century the Court has accorded considerable protection, as much as any liberal democracy, to political expression. The standard established by the Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) – that government can not criminalize general advocacy of political violence, but only speech which directly incites acts of violence – provides wide latitude for the free expression of dissenting, even revolutionary, political views. It is telling that acts as provocative and potentially disruptive to civil order as burning an American flag have been given First Amendment protection [Texas v. Johnson (1989)]. A similar level of protection is not accorded to commercial speech, which can be and often is limited and regulated in rather substantial ways. The logic for this high level of constitutional protection accorded to political expression is that it is uniquely essential to the well-being and proper functioning of democratic government, as “the people” can only come to know its democratic will in a context where it can discover and deliberate among the full range of political choices. [On this question, see Cass Sunstein’s Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech.]

One could argue analogously that academic freedom is much closer to political expression than it is to commercial speech, as academic freedom is essential to maintaining the public university and public school as centers of free inquiry and investigation where young men and women cultivate the skills and the dispositions of democratic citizenship. Just as democratic citizenship requires a free and open society for its full development, education into democratic citizenship demands a free and open university and school. Rousseau to the contrary, one can not be indoctrinated into democratic values and practices; one can not “be forced to be free.”

And if you think about it, the facts of the case before the Supreme Court pose a question which involves some of the very same issues as academic freedom. Is it not vital that those who work for the government have the protected freedom of expression to “whistle blow” on government misdeeds and abuses of power, as part of the foundation of democratic government? Are not openness and public accountability essential to a healthy democratic government?

But this is not the framework that the Court appears to be heading toward in its deliberations on Garcetti v. Ceballos. Rather, as the headline of the New York Times article captures, the frame of the Court appears to be whether workers should have constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression in the workplace. And that is not good news. For if there is any major shortcoming in the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, it most surely lies in the yawning chasm between its treatment of the free expression rights of corporations, on the one hand, and the free expression rights of labor, on the other hand.

While it may seem somewhat incongruous that corporations would have the rights expressly accorded to citizens, there is a body of American constitutional law, dating back to a ruling in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), which has bestowed ‘personhood’ upon corporations. Under the logic of the Santa Clara precedent, corporations were protected by the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment; when the due process clause was used in the 20th century to ‘incorporate’ the Bill of Rights, applying their protections to state and local governments, the Court has bestowed an ever-growing series of rights upon corporations. In the field of the First Amendment alone, corporations were given rights of political speech, commercial speech and and a “negative free speech not to be associated with the speech of others.” Having established the right to spend money in election as freedom of expression in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the court established a corporate right to spend money to influence elections and referenda in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978); it established a corporate right to commercial speech in Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corporation v. Public Utilities Commission (1980); and it created a “negative free speech not to be associated with the speech of others” in Pacific Gas & Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission (1986), when it supported a utilities objection to a law mandating the inclusion of notices from a rate-payers association in its bills.

By contrast, the Supreme Court has erected a gigantic “The First Amendment does not apply here” banner across the American workplace. As much as the field of corporate freedom of speech has expanded, the terrain of labor freedom of expression has conracted. My friend Nathan Newman, who has worked as a labor organizer and is now a labor lawyer, is tireless on this subject. [See his most recent comments on the subject at the House of Labor on the TPM Café, here and here.] As Nathan puts it, protected freedom of expression ends for the Supreme Court when it comes to workers communicating with other workers for the purposes of furthering solidarity. For example, the Court has allowed extraordinary limits on labor picket lines, based in some cases on nothing more than the content of the picketers’ message [DeBartolo Corporation. v. Florida Gulf Coast Trades Council (1988)]. Operating from these precedents, the Bush controlled N.L.R.B. has gone so far to ban the presence of ‘large inflatable rats’ at union picket lines, and, in a truly Orwellian move, to uphold a company regulation which reads “you must NOT . . . fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees.” [See Harold Meyerson’s Washington Post op-ed, "Big Brother On and Off The Job,” on this decision.] In a stark declaration of the state of the law, the DC Court of Appeals, basing itself on the Supreme Court precedents, found that “the First Amendment does not protect communications directed at – and only at – the neutral employees merely because the form of communications is handbilling and conversations.” [Warshawsky Co. v. N.L.R.B. (1999).]

It is worth noting here, if only in passing, that the right of workers to join together in unions, to protest their conditions and to strike, and to bargain collectively are based upon the First Amendment freedom of association, a protected right that the Supreme Court has held to be implicit in the freedom of speech and the right of petition contained within that Amendment. The state of labor law in the United States has so eviscerated this freedom that the leading international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, issued a scathing report – Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards – on the subject.

Insofar as the Court reads Garcetti v. Ceballos as a case of freedom of expression for public sector workers in their workplace, therefore, the results are not likely to be good. Union organization in the academic workplace will remain the first, last and – for want of another – best line of defense for academic freedom.

Posted by Leo Casey at 05:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 16, 2005

The Law on Secondary Strikes

I thought it would be worthwhile to point folks to some of the case law that bans free speech by unions talking to employees of anyone other than their own direct employer.

There was a Supreme Court case, DeBartolo v. Fla. Gulf Coast Trades Council, which found that unions could appeal for CONSUMER boycotts of companies other than their direct employer, but it made clear that such appeals to CONSUMERS was different from appeals to other WORKERS to strike against other employers.

As the DC Circuit said in Warshawsky v. NLRB in 1999 in a case involving handbilling that led to a walkout by such secondary employees:  

The Supreme Court has emphatically said that "the prohibition of inducement or encouragement of secondary pressure by § 8(b)(4)[i] carries no unconstitutional abridgment of free speech"...It follows that the First Amendment does not protect communications directed at--and only at--the neutral employees merely because the form of communications is handbilling and conversations.
You don't get clearer statements then this that the First Amendment does not apply to any appeal to labor solidarity, whether its posted on a picket sign or on a handbill.  Workers live in a world exempt from the First Amendment where all of their communication to one another can be tightly regulated by the government-- and the courts have zero constitutional problem with that.
Posted by Nathan at 09:49 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 15, 2005

Pretty good video takedown

JibJab on Wal-Mart.

Posted by Nathan at 08:40 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 14, 2005

How Courts Shut Down Union Free Speech

People think the First Amendment exists, but if you're in a labor union, the courts have declared it doesn't apply. Take union pickets-- in what is a depressingly normal decision, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed a company to move forward on a lawsuit against a union for exercising free speech-- free speech which can be punished because it's done by a union.

The case involves an electrical company, Ruzicka Electric, which was hired in February 2001 as a contractor to help build a student center at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. The union decided to picket the university, arguing that Ruzicka Electric pays substandard wages. In response to the union picketing, a number of unions working for contractors other than Ruzicka Electric refused to go to work at Lindenwood.

And therefore, according to the decision of the Eight Circuit (and the Supreme Court), the union will have committed a crime if they asked for help as the company claims. As the court said in its decision:

The picketing will be unlawful if there is an expectation or a hope or a desire that employees of the secondary employer will be induced or encouraged to take concerted action to quit working behind the picket line...Ruzicka Electric presented evidence that Local 1 agents, acting as observers at the neutral gate, engaged in picketing activity, asking neutral employees to refuse to work. If believed, this evidence establishes Local 1 engaged in unlawful secondary activity.
Most progressives don't fully understand that if a union asks other workers to help them during a strike, they have often broken the law. That act of speech-- asking for help -- is an illegal act.

You hear people prattle on about American Exceptionalism-- that US workers are individualists and company-oriented, which is why we don't have broader labor unity or general strikes as you often see in European countries.

The answer is far more prosaic. In the US, the First Amendment has been declared null and void at the workplace door and any attempt to ask for labor unity is a crime. It's really hard to have broad-based unity when you can't ask for it without finding yourself in court.

Posted by Nathan at 09:25 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

The Bankrupt Oracle of Delphi

Reprinted from Confined Space

The lament that if [Delphi Chairman Steve] Miller gets his way, auto-parts workers won't be able to buy the cars that they help build. Guess what? Boeing workers can't buy airplanes, either.
The blogosphere has been remarkably quiet about one of the most momentous events of the past weeks: the bankruptcy of Delphi Corp. For those of you who aren't perusing the business page regularly, Delphi Corp., a giant auto parts manufacturer that spun off from GM a number of years ago, has declared bankruptcy and announced its intention to cut its employees' salaries by one third: from $27 an hour to $10 an hour.

Why so momentous? What we're seeing before our very eyes are the final nails being driven into the coffin of the American blue-collar middle class. Delphi's actions will soon spread to GM and the entire American auto industry.

As Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post earlier this week:

And in the United States, auto isn't just any old industry. For much of the 20th century, it was, by many measures, our premier industry, the pride of the nation. Its Big Three manufacturers employed the most workers, produced the most output, made the largest profits, and paid their workers enough to transform the economic profile of the entire nation. In 1914, one year after he opened his first assembly line, Henry Ford doubled the daily pay of his workers, saying he wanted them to make enough to buy the cars they produced. The Fordist compact was greatly enhanced by the rise in the 1930s of the United Auto Workers, whose contracts (along with those of the United Steelworkers) created the first employment-based health insurance benefits in the land and soon became the model for our mid-century economy. In the post World War II decades, America became home to the first decently paid working class in the history of the world. This was no mean distinction.

But that was oh, so then. If Delphi gets its way, its employees will clearly not be able to buy new GM cars. (At the rate things are going, they'll have to save up to buy gas.) In the face of the combined onslaught of globalization, de-unionization and deregulation, the bottom may not be falling out of the American economy, but the middle certainly is. The very notion of a decently paid working-class job has become a defining oxymoron of our time.

Corporate America, on the other hand, can barely contain its glee and approval of the toughness and realism of Delphi Chairman Steve Miller. Dow Jones Newswires President Paul Ingrassi, writing in today's Wall St. Journal (subscription required)said --presumably with a straight face:
Another piece of sophistry: the lament that if Miller gets his way, auto-parts workers won't be able to buy the cars that they help build. Guess what? Boeing workers can't buy airplanes, either. The real issue is what pay-and-benefits levels will let Delphi effectively compete for business. That's about $20-to-$25 an hour, says Mr. Miller, instead of the current $65 per hour.
And who are we "effectively competing with?" Workers in China. In that case, we can't compete paying $10 an hour either.

Other business columnists, like the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein, resort to classical economics to justify these attacks on workers high wages and benefits. Referring to Henry Ford's commitment to pay his workers enough so that they could afford to buy one of the cars they produce, Pearlstein explains:

If every company was unionized and paid higher wages, all it would create in the end is inflation, and nobody would be better off. There are only two ways to get richer in a market economy. One, is to distort labor and product markets in a way that makes you richer at the expense of someone else. The other is to figure out how to work more productively. And in the golden years of the unionized industrial unions, alot of the gains were of the first sort rather than the second.
Now, I'm no economist, but I still find these explanations perplexing, to say the least. On one hand, workers need to take major cuts because it's the only way we can compete with foreign workers. On the other hand, the only legitimate criteria on which to base workers' salaries is productivity. But last I looked, American workers are among the most productive in the world, yet with the wages paid to Chinese workers, high productivity and a buck twenty five only gets you a ride on the Metro.

Miller's not winning any friends among the company's workers either. First, his tone resembles the kidnapper who threatens to cut a finger off your child every hour you're late with the ransom:

He said the number of factories to be closed will be determined partly by how quickly Delphi's unions get to the negotiating table. Miller suggested that some factories could be saved if negotiations pick up quickly and can be handled outside court. "In the end [the union] will do it and they will do it in the right way," he said.
And then there's little contradiction between thr incentives given managers to stay with the company, versus the "incentives" given to workers so they won't be laid off.
Miller said Delphi increased severance packages for some top executives just before the bankruptcy filing because he had to act to keep his management team. Miller, whose own pay includes a $3 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million annual salary, said executives had to sign agreements to stay with the company to be eligible for the packages. "They can't quit. We blocked the exit doors," Miller said.
Workers, on the other hand, can only stay if they take major pay cuts.

Finally, the aftershocks of Delphi's bankruptcy will not be limited to the auto industry, or even just to blue collar workers: As Meyerson points out, we already have a preview of what Delphi's oracle is predicting:

Those middle-income jobs that still come with benefits attached are increasingly clustered in the public sector, where they are becoming more vulnerable politically. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, teachers, nurses and cops struggled to win contracts comparable to the auto and steelworkers' deals. Today, they are among the last workers in America -- along with chief executive officers, we should note -- to still have defined-benefit pensions. How long they can go on before their standards, too, are ratcheted down is anybody's guess. In California, whacking public employees has become the primary purpose of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; it is the goal that underpins his initiatives in the special election he has called for next month.

And why stop there? While we're cutting wages and benefits back to 19th century levels to stay competitive, why not dismantle workplace and environmental protections as well? Eight hour days and all those damn holidays may also be luxuries we'll just have to learn to do without if we want to continue to eat and have a roof over our heads.

Miller says that Delphi's experience "has brought into sharp relief the different value the global market places on knowledge workers versus basic manufacturing workers… If you want your kids to enjoy the great American dream, get them a good education." How this is suppose to happen in an economy of McDonalds' wages, I'm not sure.

So what is to be done? Delphi's losing money? Globalization is a fact. And this is clearly a problem much bigger than Delphi. Again, I'm no economist. But there's an obvious place, as pointed out by labor blogger Jonathan Tasini:

Last point: can we scream any louder that part of the problem facing industry is the lack of a single-payer national health insurance program? Delphi, and the rest of the auto industry, are teetering because of hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs (and a good dose of mismanagement, too)--health insurance that workers deserve and should not give up. But, it's over, done, finished: private employer health insurance is a complete failure. Forget morality: national health insurance is an issue of economic competitiveness.
Finally, let's not forget that these wages and benefits (as well as health & safety rights) were not bestowed upon workers by benevolent managers. The rights and benefits that American workers enjoy (and take for granted) were were won after hard-fought, often bloody battles against those who wanted to keep as much as possible for themselves. Among the lessons that American workers are supposed to be learning in these difficult times, that is one they dare not forget.
Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:23 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 12, 2005

Bipartisan Senate Concern About Gulf Recovery Workers

Reprinted From Confined Space

I'm not entirely sure where, if anywhere, this bill will go, but it's nice to see some semblance of bipartisan concern in the Senate about the risks facing Gulf Coast recovery workers.

Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) have introduced the bipartisan S 1771 "Katrina Worker Safety and Filing Flexibility Act of 2005." Recognizing that recovery workers face "numerous and uncommon worksite and environmental hazards...with which they have little prior experience or training," the bill attempts to address many of the hazards facing recovery workers.

The bill addresses many of the real and potential problems with OSHA's response, including lack of resources, problems with immigrant workers, the lack of information about workers' rights.

The bill calls for OSHA to:

  • implement all of the relevant provisions of the Worker Health and Safety Annex plan;

  • Go beyond the rather wishy-washy "let's all be careful out there" public service announcements that OSHA is producing to develop "methods to provide workers and employers with the information they need to maintain a safe workplace, including their rights and obligations under health and safety laws" and to work with "contractors and labor organizations to reach all employers and workers involved in the emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction;"

  • Address the problems of immigrant and non-English speaking workers, working to communicate with them "about safety rights, resources, and requirements"

  • Deploy sufficient personnel to the region to successfully carry out their mission, including enforcement of and education about safety standards and rights;

  • The only reference to the fact that public employees in all of the affected states do not have OSHA coverage was language calling on OSHA to "work with State, local, and tribal governments to ensure the availability and management of all available safety resources for emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction workers."

  • And the bill calls on OSHA to work with all other federal agencies to identify hazards and solutions, and to make sure that employees engaged in clean-up of hazardous materials have personal protective equipment

  • And finally that OSHA work specifically with EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences "to provide technical assistance and training for workers covered by Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standards."

    The bill would also provide money for OSHA to provide sufficient personnel, enforcement and to offer safety training and resources "to affected workers and employers", and provides for oversite by the Department of Labor's Inspector General and frequent reports to Congress.

The bill was introduced on September 26 shortly before hundreds of occupational safety and health experts sent a letter calling on Congress to immediately to protect the health and safety of workers and residents engaged in the cleanup of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Jim Nash of Occupational Hazards notes that

By encouraging, rather than requiring, enforcement of OSHA safety rules, the Enzi-Kennedy bill appears to stop short of some of the demands contained in a letter sent to Congress Oct. 6 from more than 100 labor, religious, environmental and public health leaders and organizations.

The letter states that "thousands of disaster responders ... affected by Hurricane Katrina remain inadequately protected against exposure to environmental health hazards." The letter argues that the decision made by OSHA to provided technical assistance and advice but not enforcement actions for cleanup efforts at Ground Zero following 9/11, was partially responsible for many workplace illnesses. The lessons learned following 9/11 must be applied to the cleanup of Katrina, according to the letter.

One month after the hurricane, the signers believe that EPA and OSHA "should immediately commence enforcement of life-saving workplace and environmental laws and regulations.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:27 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 11, 2005

Reality TV Gets Unionized

The Motion Picture Editors Guild has now organized editors at a number of the new reality shows, including marque productions like "The Apprentice" and "Queer Eye."

Hollywood is a good example that even in workplaces that are knowledge-based and highly flexible, workers feel a need for and will organize for a union to protect their interests.

Posted by Nathan at 03:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wal-Mart Responsible for its Subcontractors

One part of the corporate shell game in the modern economy is companies like Wal-Mart hiring subcontractors, then turning a blind eye as workers are exploited and denied the minimum wage or other protections under the law. Companies like to argue they are not legally responsible for actions of those subcontractors.

Well on Friday, a federal judge certified a class action against Wal-Mart by undocumented workers across the country who had faced a rage of abuses while working for janitorial companies hired by Wal-Mart to clean its stores. "[Judge Joseph Greenaway] rejected Wal-Mart's assertion that since the janitors worked for contractors rather than Wal-Mart directly, Wal-Mart was not their employer."

Whether the employees of a subcontractor are also the employees of the part firm is always a fact-intensive inquiry in these kinds of cases, but it's heartening that the judge in this case is giving these workers the chance for relief in court.

The judge also affirmed that workers, no matter their legal status, have the full right to receive any wages illegally withheld. Many of these workers were deported after the federal raids on Wal-Mart that led up to these lawsuits, but they still have the right to those funds. And since Wal-Mart is accused of even deeper violations, including false imprisonment by locking employees up in stores at night, they may even be able to collect punitive damages against the company.

The most controversial part of the lawsuit was a RICO racketeering charge against Wal-Mart for conspiring to hire illegal workers. That charge didn't survive this round before the judge, but may be reintroduced again in a different form. Most immigrant advocates are a bit troubled by the idea of making immigration violations a predicate act for RICO conspiracy charges, so while such a charge could lead to triple damage charges against Wal-Mart, I'm not so unhappy with those charges losing at this point.

But the key success was sending a message to employers that using the legal game of hiring subcontractors won't save them from legal responsibility if they participate in abusing workers rights. We need more reforms to strengthen that responsibility under the law, but this decision will help.

Posted by Nathan at 07:20 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 10, 2005

Good News from Germany

With a new "grand coalition" deal between the German Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU), it's become clear that while the conservative CDU got the chancellorship, the SPD won on key policy issues:

While the conservative and SPD parties will each have eight seats around a future cabinet table, the SPD won the right to name the key finance, labour and health ministers -- all but ending hope of radical changes in those areas, economists said.

"All-important structural reforms of the labour market and the social security system are clearly out of reach. Merkel will have to make concessions to an extent inconceivable only a few weeks ago," said HVB group economist Andreas Rees.

"It is time to say good-bye to an initially intended transition to a more flexible collective bargaining system and a reduction of non-wage costs for employers."

Yes, no "flexible collective bargaining" -- ie. undermining union power in Germany.

But the reality was that more than 50% of the Germany voters opposed conservative policies when you add up the SPD, Greens and "Left Party" votes, so the rightwing were always playing with a weak hand in these negotiations.

Posted by Nathan at 11:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Why No National Health Care

Kevin Drum asks: Why no national health care?

My answer is it's the fault of the unions. Because of the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s, we won just enough against corporations to create a pretty decent health care system for most workers and their families. And then Medicaid covered a lot of the poor folks at the bottom.

Which meant that most of the population were left with a stake in the present system and fears about change. So a fully comprehensive national health care system would get strong approval in theory but opposition could be easily whipped up by playing to the fears, since most people had little to gain. The dirty secret is that most unions were lukewarm about national health care for years (including during 1993 and 1994) because the system did well by their members and unions often strengthened their position by managing the health care funds.

But take hope-- to site one of my favorite bad graphs:

The trends have continued and, in addition, copays and other costs mean that even employees with health care coverage are paying more out of pocket.

Which means that fewer and fewer people have a stake in the present system of health care coverage. And unions increasingly see negotiations for health care sucking up all their time and efforts during negotiations, so they are redoubling their efforts to pass serious health care reform. And as large employers providing health care see their profits eroding due to having to compete with countries with national health care systems -- and without the costs they face -- even some employers can be cajoled around to support.

Most employers will probably stay opposed but even a minority joining with the uninsured and increasingly partly insured can change the politics around universal coverage. It's tricky but there are models out there-- and polls show that as the politics line up, basic public support for a government program is solid.

Posted by Nathan at 09:45 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Dems & Progressive Orgs Hire Union Buster

Here is a report that a company doing fundraising for the Democratic Party and other progressive organizations has been engaged in union busting.

A good place to start is to contact the Democratic National Committee and demand an investigation.

Better yet, tell them to do business only with companies that are already unionized or agree upfront to recognize any union when a majority of workers request it-- exactly the principles embodied in the Democratic-endorsed Employee Free Choice Act. None of these progressive organizations need to wait for the GOP to agree to this legislation to implement its principles in-house.

Posted by Nathan at 02:12 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 09, 2005

Delphi: Executives Bankrupt a Company, Get a Pay Increase

A lot of commentators want to spin the economic problems in the auto industry as the fault of the union pay and health care contracts.

But nothing shows that the blame belongs with the executives than the announcement that the giant Delphi auto supply company (formerly part of GM) is declaring bankruptcy, yet the executives just had their golden parachutes increased:

[I]n a report to the federal agency that supervises publicly traded companies, Delphi said the top executives are now eligible for up to 18 months of pay and some of their regular bonus.

The old separation policy "wasn't competitive" for the top executives, said company spokesperson Claudia Baucus. Delphi's top five executives, not including Miller, were paid between $800,000 and $1 million last year, she said.

It boggles the mind that anyone can blame workers for trying to make a decent, not a lavish, but a decent living for their families, when top executives piss away millions to pad their own pockets on a scale that most people only dream about.

The likely upshot of the Delphi bankruptcy is to keep those executive salaries flying high, while workers will see their pay, pensions and health benefits slashed.:

The company wants to cut wages to less than half of current levels and eliminate a "jobs bank" that gives full pay to 4,000 laid-off workers...Delphi's retirees face similar cuts if the company follows the lead of steel companies and airlines that have successfully used the bankruptcy courts to offload their pension obligations to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, an agency set up in 1974 that is funded by contributions from premiums paid by companies. Once the agency takes over a pension plan, workers receive only part of their benefits.
It's not that those executive salares directly threw the company into bankruptcy, but they reflect a general mismanagement that has been chronic in the industry for decades. They missed fuel efficient cars and ceded the market to Japan. Having locked themselves into gas guzzlers, they're suddenly caught flat-footed as gas prices soar. They're paying off executives to the tune of millions a year each for dumb, dumb decisions.

Oh yeah, and if they would support single-payer government insurance, their legacy costs for health care would disappear. But again, ideological decisions in the boardroom make them prefer to head towards bankruptcy than support a policy that would help them and help all American workers.

Posted by Nathan at 09:07 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

October 08, 2005

Joss Whedon- Union Hero

Okay, I admit it. I was a Buffy fan from season one and watched Firefly religiously, so it just warms my heart that Joss Whedon in creating the movie Serenity has made an explicit case for why union labor beats out non-union labor in many cases, as detailed in this Los Angeles Times article.

The key to the story is that Whedon has made a big budget sci-fi film for the comparatively low price of $50 million -- a requirement for him to revive his baby. How'd he do it? Not by running overseas to some low-wage location but by sticking at home in high-wage unionized Hollywood:

"Joss was adamant from the very start," says James Brubaker, president of physical production for Universal. "He was so eager to show that you could make a movie in L.A., we never thought of going anywhere else."...
The executive producer of the show, David Lester, gave the example of building the large set of the show, the spaceship Serenity, which was economic precisely because it was done union:
As a producer, Lester says he is tired of hearing that Los Angeles crafts people are "too expensive." They cost more than in other parts of the world, he says, because they know how to do things better and faster. He saw this firsthand, he says, when he realized that the big cost-saver he had counted on — the availability of sets from the television show "Firefly" — was not going to work out.

"Serenity, the ship, is a huge character," he says...This required squads of carpenters, welders and riggers working all over gigantic Stage 12 at Universal. Each crew had a gang boss, a supervisory construction position that pays a premium. "We had 23 of them," Lester says, "each a craftsman and a leader, running independent but coordinated crews. The studio was not happy."

But when the Serenity was created in just 14 weeks, the studio felt much better. "I defy anyone," Lester says, "to find that much talent anywhere else in the world."

The article is fascinating in outlining how a high-wage economy creates an ecology of high skill workers who can flexibly work on multiple projects. The worry is that runaway production outside Hollywood is undermining that ecology:
With 40 years in the business, [cinematographer Jack] Green is passionately outspoken about runaway production, which he thinks is leading not only to a lot of wasted time and money but to a long-term disintegration among the various crafts.

"So many crafts people are being hit so hard that they're going into other businesses or retiring early," he says. "There's been a lot of weakening in the knowledge base."

He cites standby painters. With dwindling set work in L.A., as pros retire, they are not replaced, to the industry's detriment. "This is an unrewarded craft, but it takes a good and true artist to make sunlight where there is no sunlight," he says. "Nowadays you can find someone to age down a set, but you want to put a sun strike on a wall? You might not have someone who knows how to do it."

Without steady work in their hometown, people who became artists in hair and makeup, wardrobe and set design, camera and lights, are taking second jobs and thereby weakening their learning curve. "I know guys in the business who are going into real estate or opening bed-and-breakfasts," Green says. This makes the apprenticeship that allowed so many careers to bloom impossible.

What the article makes clear is that it took generations of high-wage employment to attract and train the talent that made Hollywood the center of global craft skill in the industry. The question is how many years of cut-rate non-union runaway production will it take to destroy that creative patrimony?
Posted by Nathan at 10:19 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 06, 2005

Taking Bully Tactics Down to Nicaragua

Chuck Todd has a good piece on US using threatening tactics down in Nicaragua to force the legislature there to pass CAFTA. With Daniel Ortega positioned for a possible comeback to power in the country, this could be a new flashpoint of Bush aggression overseas.

Posted by Nathan at 10:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 04, 2005

Mier's Union Busting Firm

Via Jordan's Confined Space blog, it turns out unsurprisingly that Mier's firm has a large "union avoidance"/ie. union-busting division.

In fact, they represented the companies fighting the Houston janitors who struck because the companies Mier's firm was advising illegally fired janitors standing up for the union, a campaign I highlighted here and here. This may not have been Miers specialty, but between the corporate fraud and the union busting advice, you get a pretty good picture of the kind of law practiced by the firm.

Posted by Nathan at 12:54 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 03, 2005

Doing Society's Dirty (and Dangerous) Work

Reprinted From Confined Space

I spend a lot of time in this blog talking about workers who get killed in trench collapses, falls off buildings and chemical plant explosions.

Lost in the "drama" of these fatalities are the hazards that Public employees do some of the most unpleasant, but necessary jobs that the citizens of this country demand to live the life they've become accustomed to. And they face hazards that most of us don't want to think about.

And for all that they get lousy pay.

Take social workers, for example:

Social work can be a risky business.

In February, an angry mother in Woburn slammed a door into a social worker's face during a home visit. In April, a Fitchburg woman threw a potted plant at a social worker's head. In July, a social worker in Lowell was almost run down by a pickup driven by a disgruntled former client.

And overshadowing all of these recent reports is the slaying of Linda Silva, a Department of Social Services worker who was murdered in 1996 by a father who had lost custody of his children.

State social workers say these examples show the potential dangers they face every day, and because of those hazards, they deserve better retirement benefits.

SEIU Local 509 which represents Department of Social Services workers in Massachusetts is pushing for a bill that put them into a higher-paying category of the state retirement system along with employees that include mental health hospital attendants, county elevator maintenance men, municipal electricians, juvenile probation officers, some correction officers, and court officers. The change would allow them to retire a few years earlier and receive a higher pension.

Summer Twyman was the social worker who had a door slammed on her face in February. She was out of work for months. Her injuries included a concussion and nerve damage. While she was out of work, she used up her sick time and received less pay. She also had to cover some medical expenses.

Twyman, 24, returned to her job at the DSS office in Cambridge in June, while following up with physicians and her neurologist.

"I've been out to many homes with police officers during removals. It's because of those situations [police and probation officers] get those benefits . . . we are in those same homes," she said.

"We should get equal benefits," Twyman said.

Meanwhile, let's look at probation officers in Los Angeles who staged a sick-out to protest dangerous working conditions, inadequate staffing and compensation that falls short of what other counties pay.
Some at the demonstration said they had been attacked while transporting repeat juvenile offenders. Others said they had been shot at — while armed only with pepper spray and a cellphone — while trying to visit probationers.

"They want us to go out and do proactive probation work, but they don't want to compensate us properly for the risks we're taking," said Aldin Tatley, who works with a unit of armed probation officers that checks on violent gang members in Lancaster, Palmdale and Altadena. "I have two kids. I want to go home at night."

AFSCME Local 685, which represents 400 Los Angeles County probation officers, has been negotiating a new contract with the county for three years. Almost 1000 called in sick Tuesday and 500 showed up for a rally to demand that the county return to the bargaining table.

Aside from poorly paying dangerous jobs, you may have noticed one advantage these workers have that most American workers don't have: unions. That means the ability to lobby for legislation, to stage collective work actions and stage demonstrations that build attention and support for their issues.

It's a lesson that more workers in this country should be paying attention to.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:06 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack